Story and slideshow by RYAN CARRILLO
Visit Zest Kitchen and Bar and see some of the amazing organic dishes.
Nestled between some of the biggest chain restaurants in Salt Lake City, Zest Kitchen and Bar provides a dining experience that no one else can.
The restaurant, located at 275 S. 200 West, is reinventing healthy eating by providing a menu free of processed foods that tastes incredible. Everything the restaurant serves is also 100 percent organic.
“Everything’s fresh, and that’s really what I wanted is fresh and organic real food that came from whole foods and not from a box,” said Casey Staker, the restaurant owner. He opened the bar and restaurant nearly 2 and 1/2 years ago.
Staker has crafted a menu of 35 unique items between brunch, lunch, dinner and dessert. The restaurant offers an eclectic fusion of ethnic tastes and American favorites while using healthier ingredients than nearly anywhere else. It also offers a more “grown-up” environment, being for individuals 21 years old and older.
The brunch menu, available on Fridays and Saturdays (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) features perfectly sculpted buckwheat pancakes or a fresh southwest skillet with quinoa, cheese, black beans and fresh pico de gallo, among other entrees. The brunch menu also includes the “best mimosas in town” for just $5, which come in a variety of flavors.
Zest’s lunch menu provides options that are hard to find anywhere else. Selections range from fresh fruit smoothies and small plate items like cheesey Brazilian bread bites to a fresh kale salad and larger entrée items like coconut curry forbidden rice. For people looking for less-healthy health food there is “barely buzzed beehive” grilled cheese, which puts a fresh spin on an American favorite by pairing it with the soup of the day, pesto and seasonal fruit.
The dinner menu mixes things up by offering mostly shared plates or larger entrees, while still featuring fresh salads and perfectly blended juices. This particular menu is home to beet and walnut dip served with fresh veggies, baked mushrooms with cashew cheese and a tomato and eggplant ratatouille that comes with spinach quinoa.
Perhaps the best part of the menu comes after the entrées, soups and salads have been cleared away: dessert. Staker takes the same approach from his entrees and appetizers and applies it toward dessert staples, creating sweet, succulent cakes and tortes. One of these masterpieces is a carrot cake topped with rich cream cheese, shaved carrot and orange peel.
Tim Hurty, a local resident, has visited Zest Kitchen and Bar on multiple occasions. He is fond of the black bean chia patties served on a multigrain bun. Being a dedicated vegan, he was drawn to the restaurant because of its ability to accommodate his dietary needs. At Zest he is able to enjoy a delicious meal without fear of cross-contamination, which occurs when animal byproducts come in contact with any of the ingredients used in the meal.
Being a vegetarian himself, Staker’s menu is completely free of meat. Many of the dishes are also vegan and the staff is currently working to provide vegan accommodations for all their menu items. Not only that, all the dishes are gluten-free as well.
“Naturally by design vegetarian food or [rather] healthy vegetarian food is almost always gluten-free,” Staker said. As a restaurant owner, the needs of his customers seem to be a driving force behind the menu selection.
Billy McMichael is the head chef at the restaurant. Having worked in vegetarian restaurants for 10 years he understands the importance of these dietary restrictions in the lives of his customers.
“The Zest mission is to be inclusive,” McMichael said. “So almost any allergy you have, you can come here and get a good meal anyway.”
McMichael personally likes the challenge that comes with providing healthy food without sacrificing the taste. It forces him to be creative and innovative with the dishes he and the other staff members prepare.
“It’s been nice to come here where it is less about copying meat style dishes,” he said. “[It’s] more about charting your own path, making things that people haven’t done before, working with more ethnic variety, more variety of produce. I can’t just cheat and flavor up a big piece of tofu and put it with some mashed potatoes and say ‘here’s dinner.’”
The restaurant is also nearly free of soy and doesn’t use any peanuts. For individuals with any of these dietary restrictions, whether forced or voluntary, a restaurant with Zest’s knowledge and dedication is heaven-sent.
For vegans it can be difficult to find a restaurant that fully understands the difference between their needs and vegetarians. Vegetarians limit their diet to not eat any killed animals while vegans take it a step further by not eating anything from an animal. This eliminates things like eggs, milk and cheeses. While there are several restaurants in the Salt Lake Valley that can accommodate the needs of both groups, there are few, if any, that also match Zest’s focus to overall health.
Zest Kitchen and Bar is also the only dedicated gluten-free restaurant in the city, which may come as a surprise as the gluten-free trend continues to grow and has created a multibillion dollar industry. Chain and local restaurants alike are expanding gluten-free menu items, but none have entirely abandoned the ingredient. Salt Lake is home to several bakeries that are dedicated gluten-free but that’s where it stops.
For individuals with Celiac Disease, a severe autoimmune disease that is triggered by gluten, Zest’s commitment offers them a hidden benefit that most people don’t see. The symptoms of the disease can be unleashed with the slightest trace of gluten in someone’s food. That means that even eating a gluten-free meal, if prepared in a standard restaurant kitchen where gluten is also used, can potentially cause symptoms to flare-up since the food may come into contact with gluten in a variety of ways. Since Zest’s kitchen is dedicated gluten-free there is zero chance for cross contamination. No one else in the area can offer that.
What may be most surprising is why Staker and his staff run the restaurant this way.
“I didn’t do this restaurant because I was sick,” said the owner. “I did it because I wanted a healthy place to eat.”
Zest is also “healthy” for the economy. The restaurant tries to buy as much local product as possible, supporting local merchants throughout the year. Since the menu is dependent on fresh fruits and vegetables this can become difficult as the seasons change.
“In the summer we do as much local [shopping] as we can. We still get our greens from a local greenhouse,” Staker said. “We have a special salad that’s always local. [The selection of produce] gets better and better when it gets warmer. Spring, summer, fall we have a lot of local stuff. During winter we have to outsource. Our goal is to support local.”
That commitment to the local community doesn’t stop just in the restaurant’s shopping practices. The staff is active in the community, exposing new people to their food on a regular basis and helping them make better dietary decisions.
During the summer of 2014, Zest operated a booth at the summer farmers market at Pioneer Park, 350 S. 300 West. In 2015, the restaurant is ditching the booth for a more mobile option.
Soon Zest Kitchen and Bar will be unveiling Utah’s first health food truck. The truck will be featured at health conventions like the gluten-free and healthy living expos. Staker is excited for the opportunities the truck will give the restaurant.
He says that public response has been great whenever Zest has had a booth at these types of events, so the food truck response should be even better.
“When we go to the gluten-free expo people say ‘oh my gosh you guys actually have real food. You guys are serving heathy vegetables and dips and stuff,’” he said. “At the gluten-free expo it’s cakes and cookies and packaged stuff.”
The restaurant’s truck is scheduled to debut at the end of April 2015 once preparations are finalized; an exact date has not been set yet.